Merrie but missed
• Photo gallery: Remembering Kupuna through music, dance and memories
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
The 47th annual Merrie Monarch Festival is under way today through Saturday in Hilo, where reaction to the Islands' most prestigious hula competition runs the gamut from solemn nostalgia to amped-up anticipation.
The event has taken on a bittersweet tinge for many longtime participants and observers, losing its two most notable driving forces in the past few months: hula master Uncle George Na'ope, who died in October, and executive director Auntie Dottie Thompson, who died March 19. And then, shockingly, on March 20, kumu hula Rae Fonseca of Hilo died of a heart attack, even as his hula school was preparing to give a performance in honor of Uncle George, his hula teacher.
Yet Luana Kawelu, Thompson's daughter and her successor as director, said, "It's not different for me, because I'm so busy just getting everything organized. If I had time to sit and think, maybe ... but it's just time to get the show on the road."
Kawelu pointed to the heavens, thinking of her mother, and said, "She's looking down on me from up there."
Jerry Santos of the Hōkū Award-winning group Olomana, who is performing for only the third time at Merrie Monarch, said, "It's a special time to be here because all the people we lost are people that inspired me."
His ensemble will accompany Keali'i Reichel's Miss Aloha Hula candidate in her 'auana (modern-style hula) performance.
The sound of Reichel's "Kawaipunahele" spilled from the stadium as the hālau of Leina'ala Heine Kalama lined up, waiting for other dancers to vacate the stadium so they could rehearse.
Kūpuna Jade Ka'iulani Hind and Florence Iwalani Koanui, former hula sisters of Kalama's, waited alongside the hālau. They recalled the first Merrie Monarch hula competition, in 1971, when there were only 10 hālau performing (there are 24 now) and only seven dancers in their hula school — Auntie Pauline Kekahuna's Hauoli Hula Girls.
"It is a very sad thing; Auntie Dottie and Uncle George were very important," Hind said. "It is through their hard work and efforts that this (festival) came to happen."
Thompson's relentless promotion efforts, along with the years of TV coverage, have brought much attention to the hula. This festival is one high-profile avenue through which the Islands' native dance and language, and various associated arts, have been revived.
For these elders, there is a strong sense of an era passing; the simplicity and homegrown nature of the hula competition of their day is giving way to a more sophisticated era.
Not, they say, a bad thing, just different.
"Bittersweet, yeah?" Hind said.
"Different, yeah, this year," said kumu hula Hokulani De Rego.